Nobody’s perfect. We all have our faults, and most of us have gotten really good at hiding them where no one can see them. Yet when someone becomes even a little bit intimate with us, they might reveal these faults and make light of them in a skillful (or not so skillful) way. How can we possibly be okay with that? And better yet, is there a way we could view this public humiliation as a teaching we can grow from?
There is a beautiful Buddhist text dating back to the 14th century known as the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Bodhi can be translated from Sanskrit as “open” or “awake,” while sattva means “being,” so a bodhisattva is an open-hearted being. A meditation master known as Ngulchu Thogme composed these verses to teach us how to live a full life with open hearts, to be helpful to those around us, and to show up more for our day-to-day lives. One verse offers advice on how we can make peace with the people who might point out our flaws in a public way:
If in the middle of a crowd of people
Someone reveals your hidden faults and abuses you for them,
To see him as a spiritual friend and to bow with respect
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
Let’s say you’re out to dinner with your partner and a group of friends. You start talking about Brett, your annoying co-worker who always talks about people behind their backs. Your spouse, in a light-hearted way, points out that you’re doing that right now by trash-talking Brett. “Okay, but I don’t normally talk about people behind their backs,” you say defensively. The table falls silent. “Sometimes you do,” your spouse replies. What do you do now?
- Deny the whole thing, saying this is the first time you’ve ever talked negatively about anyone in your whole life
- Immediately tell a joke as a way to change the subject, ignoring the feedback entirely
- Throw a fit and make everyone uncomfortable
- Thank your partner for pointing that out and admitting you should probably keep an eye on that nasty habit
Most of us would fall into one of the first few categories, as it doesn’t feel good to have our negative habits or faults pointed out to us. No one enjoys seeing how they live a less-than-mindful existence, and certainly no one likes to have these things revealed in public. However, Ngulchu Thogme is saying that if we want to move away from these negative tendencies, we need to try option D a bit more often.
Whether the fault is talking poorly about others, rampant jealousy, anger issues, or something else entirely, we all have these little habits we’ve refined over the years, and we don’t always notice when they rear their ugly heads. One reason I often recommend meditation is so that people can start to look at not just the peaceful and wise aspects of their being but also these negative tendencies. When we sit down and become familiar with our minds through meditation, we’re really embracing all of who we are, not just the good stuff.
Perhaps you are sitting there meditating and it’s the tenth time you’ve told someone off—all in your own head. That’s the moment you might start to discern that this is a habitual pattern you ought to address. Having acknowledged that, you come back to the object of meditation, such as the breath.
The more you meditate, the more you see these faults play out in the rest of your life, but—since you have been training in acknowledging them, letting them go, and coming back to the present moment—you all of a sudden see that you have more mental space and the ability to cut through these negative qualities, to not allow them out so often.
That said, a lot of times it’s not us catching our own faults playing out in day-to-day life, it’s someone who knows us well holding up a mirror and revealing them. When that mirror appears in front of you, you might want to push it away. But a bonus to meditation is that it allows us to stay with our discomfort. So the more you train in the practice, the more you might be able to simply listen and discern whether there’s real truth to the accusation. If there is, then this public embarrassment has really been a blessing in disguise. By having your fault pointed out, you’re less likely to repeat it again in the future and will live a happier and fuller life as a result of giving up slander, irrational jealous comments, and so on.
Instead of being angry with this person holding up the mirror, you should thank them. Ngulchu Thogme says that this person is acting as a spiritual friend—by pointing out your negative tendencies, they are presenting you with an opportunity to confront and move beyond these behaviors. What a gift!
In this way, we can practice holding off on resentment in response to someone pointing out our ugly habits and instead thank them! These people are true teachers, rubbing away some of our negative tendencies. Over time, when the right form of pressure is put on carbon, it is transformed into diamond. Here, the pressure of someone pointing out our faults similarly transforms us, so that we shake off the negative habits we carry and are more in touch with the indestructible peace and happiness that lies right beneath the surface. The more we listen to these spiritual friends and respond with gratitude the more we live a life we can be proud of.